North­ern star

From a trau­matic child­hood in care, to be­ing a celebrated au­thor; poet Lemn Sis­say’s story is both heart­break­ing and gal­vanis­ing. Mi­randa Sawyer is swept away by this sur­pris­ing force of na­ture

Red - - CONTENTS - Pho­to­graphs HAMISH BROWN

Poet Lemn Sis­say talks about his trau­matic child­hood, and why he won’t be defined as a ‘sur­vivor’

Lemn Sis­say is not your ev­ery­day poet. He’s not your ev­ery­day man. At the Red shoot, he quickly makes every­one his friend: photographer, stylist, make-up artist, as­sis­tants, even the chef at the café where we have lunch. The air is filled with his big laugh. A charm­ing, gre­gar­i­ous, gen­er­ous per­son­al­ity, Sis­say is a man, ac­cord­ing to Kirsty Young who in­ter­viewed him on Desert Is­land Discs, who can “hold a room”. He’s a poet in the same way that a pop star is a singer. Po­etry is his gift, but it’s his per­son­al­ity that cap­ti­vates.

Some­times, when performing on stage, he lists his achieve­ments. His MBE for ser­vices to lit­er­a­ture, two uni­ver­sity doc­tor­ates, be­ing the of­fi­cial poet for the Lon­don 2012 Olympics and the Chan­cel­lor for Manch­ester Uni­ver­sity. He’s won a BAFTA, made BBC doc­u­men­taries, been artist-in-res­i­dence at the South­bank Cen­tre… He says all of these ac­com­plish­ments out loud, not to show off, but to make them real. There were no fam­ily mem­bers at any of the cer­e­monies. “The land­marks aren’t the same with­out fam­ily,” he says to me. He calls his po­ems “flags in the moun­tain­side”. He writes them to prove what has hap­pened to him, “to mark where I have been”.

In 1966, Sis­say’s Ethiopian mum, Ye­marshet, then

21, ar­rived in Bri­tain. She was preg­nant. So­cial work­ers per­suaded her to give birth in Lan­cashire and hand over her child to be adopted. Though she re­fused to sign adop­tion pa­pers, when Sis­say was born, in May 1967, he was given to fos­ter par­ents in Wi­gan – child­less at that point – who were told to treat him as their own. He was brought up as Nor­man Green­wood, their el­dest son.

His child­hood, says Sis­say, was “idyl­lic” un­til he was 12, when the Green­woods de­cided they didn’t want him any more. With­out warn­ing or ex­pla­na­tion, he was put into a chil­dren’s care home, cast out by the only fam­ily he’d ever had, sent to a school where he knew no­body. The peo­ple he called Mum and Dad never vol­un­tar­ily saw him again. Every time he ran away home, they sent him back.

Dur­ing his teens, Sis­say was moved from care home to care home. Four in to­tal, the last of which, Wood End, was an as­sess­ment cen­tre for ju­ve­nile delin­quents. He was put there for pour­ing three tiny tins of Air­fix paint out of his bed­room win­dow. He was meant to be in Wood End for two weeks, but he was kept there for 10 months, where he suf­fered phys­i­cal abuse. Then, at 18, he was kicked out, af­ter be­ing given his birth cer­tifi­cate and adop­tion pa­pers. This was the first time he saw his birth mother’s name, and the name she’d given him: Lemn Sis­say.

“I’ve been called a sur­vivor,” he says, as we munch through chicken and salad. “And I think, ‘Re­ally? That’s how you want to de­fine me?’ Is that the measuring stick? Be­cause that can’t be good enough. Sur­vivor isn’t enough.”

SIS­SAY’S STORY HAS MADE HIM THE PER­SON HE IS TO­DAY: A LOT MORE THAN A SUR­VIVOR.

For a start, he’s had to dis­cover what that story is for him­self. As soon as he got his adop­tion pa­pers, he be­gan a search for Ye­marshet, who he found in the Gam­bia when he was 21. Their meet­ing did not go par­tic­u­larly well. He also tracked his birth fa­ther, and dis­cov­ered he’d died in

1972. His en­coun­ters with his fa­ther’s side of the fam­ily weren’t pleas­ant, ei­ther. And then, four years ago, he made contact with his fos­ter par­ents. Once more, it wasn’t the eas­i­est of re­unions. “Put it this way,” he says. “I have an enor­mous fam­ily now. I’ve made contact with all of them. But I don’t see any of them at Christ­mas.”

But, at Christ­mas, Sis­say is al­ways busy. In 2013, he set up a Christ­mas din­ner in Manch­ester for young peo­ple who had come out of the care sys­tem. It was a suc­cess and, last year, there were Christ­mas din­ners in Manch­ester, Lon­don, Leeds, Ox­ford and Liver­pool. He is proud of how well the din­ners are go­ing. “Christ­mas can be the worst time for a kid who has left care, it was for me, and no­body was do­ing any­thing about that,” he says. “Be­cause the con­ver­sa­tion with the sys­tem is al­ways cu­rated by the sys­tem. Say you’re in an in­sti­tu­tion. You leave the in­sti­tu­tion and set up a lobby group that lob­bies

the in­sti­tu­tion, but it lob­bies the in­sti­tu­tion in ex­actly the way the in­sti­tu­tion wants it to do. This is where punk rock comes in.” He means that if you want to change how a ter­ri­ble scheme af­fects those in­side it, you don’t change small things about it; you re­ject the whole thing and of­fer an alternative. Hence, the Christ­mas din­ners.

Re­ject­ing the sys­tem isn’t easy. You need drive and luck. Plus, racism and root­less­ness can be sub­tle op­pres­sors. Sis­say strug­gled against the as­sump­tion that what he does is ‘street’ po­etry, jumped-up rap. He can re­call an­other writer telling him, “You get all the good gigs be­cause you’re black.” And when he did a spot of TV presenting in his twen­ties, a crew mem­ber in­tro­duced him to some­one say­ing, “This is

Lemn, he hates white peo­ple.”

Sis­say’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries, he says, are all golden. He grew up play­ing in the park, go­ing to church, hol­i­day­ing in But­lin’s. The Green­woods spent most of their hol­i­days in Scot­land, among aunts and un­cles and cousins. He loved it, as he loved life. “I thought every­one smiled,” he says. “Only later did I realise that they were smil­ing be­cause I was smil­ing at them.”

His par­ents were very re­li­gious and, when they sent him away, they did so be­cause they be­lieved he was bring­ing the devil into their home. Sis­say was hit­ting ado­les­cence, test­ing bound­aries by com­ing home later than was al­lowed, tak­ing bis­cuits from the tin with­out ask­ing. Hardly the devil’s work, un­less all teenagers are the sons and daugh­ters of Satan. But too much for the Green­woods who, by this point, had three younger chil­dren of their own. Even though they had al­ways told Sis­say that they were his ‘for­ever fam­ily’.

Over the years that he has gone pub­lic with his story, the Green­woods never got in touch. It was Sis­say who con­tacted them again, in 2012. A meet­ing was set up, with, he thought, his mum and sib­lings; but they brought all the aunts and un­cles (“my aunt was look­ing dag­gers at me”) and made him go to his un­cle’s church. Still, he man­aged to tell his mum (his fos­ter dad had died) that he for­gave her. She said, “I can breathe again”, and told him that her own mother had hated her. He said, “Do you think I don’t know?” A heal­ing of sorts. He says that it was only once he’d for­given the Green­woods that he could re­call his early child­hood. Up un­til then those years were blank.

“Since for­giv­ing them prop­erly,” he says, “a big weight has lifted off my shoul­ders. Be­cause, where does all that lack of for­give­ness go to? It goes to your part­ner. It goes in your gut, it goes in your be­hav­iour, it goes into the fact you can’t let peo­ple close to you… You feel like you have some­thing to de­fend and you’ve no idea what it is.”

The care home that the Green­woods sent him to was run mostly by ex-army of­fi­cers. Their rules were petty, en­forced by vi­o­lence. Sis­say fought, though he wasn’t a fighter; he cried some­times. “And all the time I was cry­ing, I was think­ing: ‘You have no idea why

I’m cry­ing. You think it’s be­cause it’s x, y and z, but you don’t know. You’re just con­tain­ing me’.”

Once he was out of the sys­tem, he be­gan to sell his po­etry. Dole money funded the print­ing of his po­ems. His creative work was fund­ing his life work; his life work was find­ing his mother. Ye­marshet had mar­ried a min­is­ter of Haile Se­lassie’s gov­ern­ment and was forced to flee when Se­lassie was de­posed. When Sis­say fi­nally met Ye­marshet in the Gam­bia, she em­braced him and said, “Can we not talk about this? I have a vis­i­tor.” She also told him to tell her other chil­dren that he was their cousin.

Sis­say was hurt by her be­hav­iour, though he now ac­cepts it. He told his sib­lings who he was in 1996.

There were sim­i­lar prob­lems with his fa­ther’s fam­ily, who he met in New York around the same time. “What I re­alised is that fam­ily is about se­crets,” he says. “It’s about hold­ing in­for­ma­tion back be­cause you know a fam­ily mem­ber might not cope. You have to live with that. The best thing you can do when you find your fam­ily, is to let them go. I’ve done that. All I wanted was for them to find me.”

HIS STORY IS TRAU­MATIC, BUT IT’S NOT OUR PITY THAT SIS­SAY NEEDS.

It’s our re­spect. And he has that. In fact, he says, he en­joys him­self “now more than I ever did. I look at my life and it’s been quite in­cred­i­ble.” He laughs his big laugh. “I mean, I’m known in Ethiopia now! I’ve done so much of what I wanted to do at 18. If you aim for the top of the tree, you’ll get to the first branch. But if you aim for the sky, you get to the top of the tree. I’m happy.”

Also, I say, there is an­other way to see your story now. It’s full of fam­ily! There are so many peo­ple in­volved, it might as well be Game Of Thrones. Sis­say laughs. It

makes me won­der why he has no chil­dren of his own.

It’s the ob­vi­ous way to make a fam­ily.

“I made a de­ci­sion at 18,” he says, “that I wouldn’t have chil­dren un­til I’d found my fam­ily and my story. I had to find the ev­i­dence to con­struct a true story. I couldn’t pass a false one on to my kid.”’ But you have your story now, I point out. “Yes,” he says. “And maybe if I’d have had a kid, would ev­ery­thing have been all right and won­der­ful? I made a de­ci­sion, and now I look at my­self and I’m 49, sin­gle, and I think, wow, the boy who didn’t have a fam­ily has ended up not hav­ing a fam­ily.”

He would love to have chil­dren, he says. But he’s not in the right place. He had a 13-year re­la­tion­ship that ended a cou­ple of years ago, and he’s sin­gle, for now. This seems lu­di­crous to me, and I find my­self urg­ing him to set­tle down. Make his own fam­ily, let them help con­struct his fu­ture story. “Ha!” he says. “What a great gift that would be! Are you go­ing to sort out my love life?”

Yes, I say. Ladies, Lemn Sis­say is a catch. Over to you.

Gold From The Stone by Lemn Sis­say (Canon­gate, £12.99)

If you AIM for the top of the TREE, you’ll get to the first branch. But if you aim for the SKY, you get to the top of the tree

Lemn Sis­say with his fos­ter fam­ily

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